“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:12-15).
God has spoken, God still speaks, and God will forever speak. Communication with God is more than possible; it is absolutely essential for the life of our relationship with God. God wants us to hear and to respond to what we hear. Our life now and forever will be shaped by God’s word to us. We need to learn how to discern and decipher God’s address to us.
Our seeking to understand how God speaks to us is a lifelong task. God addresses us through six means: nature, natural events, supernatural events, Scripture, other persons, and direct inner witness.
1. God speaks through nature: God addresses us as Creator in creation itself. This is called God’s “general revelation,” God’s self-language through the creation. All of creation is God’s speech, in which we may sense the Speaker. As Psalm 19:1-4 attests: “The heavens are telling the glory of God…the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”
2. God speaks through natural events: This is called God’s “ordinary means” of address. Here it is usually less what happens than when it happens that makes it seem to us that God is speaking to us, that God is acting in our lives. Examples of divine “signs” include the when of a much needed rain, or a desired but unexpected knock on the door or phone call. I will never forget the expansive visage of twin rainbows in the skies over Des Moines, Iowa, after a vexing, painful ordeal at a church I had been serving. We were finally able to leave for Minnesota and a much needed vacation. Driving north just after a hard rain toward what turned out to be priceless family time together in the north woods, two majestic rainbows appeared. It seemed as if God were addressing us, saying “I Am in control; the storm is now past; all will be well; be at peace.” That is just how it turned out.
3. God speaks through supernatural events (miracles): This is called God’s “extraordinary means” of address, and concerns events that are not readily explainable through natural laws. God can bring about a physical or spiritual healing, which attests to God’s presence, power and purpose in our lives. Everywhere that Jesus went, He performed miracles of healing, calling them “signs” of the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, wherein God is sovereignly present and active. Jesus told His disciples, including us, to continue to do as He did, and so to carry on the message of the Good News of the perpetual presence of God’s kingdom of healing, love, truth and justice.
4. God speaks through Scripture: This is called God’s “special revelation,” and is the most significant, definitive and reliable of all forms of God’s speech to us. The Bible reveals as no other source who God is, who we are, what God wants of us and where we are invited to go eternally. No other written document has such power and clarity. Scripture provides us with the canon, meaning the yardstick-like measurement by means of which to understand, evaluate and interpret divine communication and the content thereof. Paul summarizes that, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
5. God speaks through other persons: God uses other persons to bring home a message to us, even though these persons are usually unaware that God is addressing us through them. The right word coming to us at just the right time can create an unmistakable sense of God speaking to us – and for me at least, a shiver up and down my back! We may want to say to this personal messenger of the Lord, “You cannot know what you just said to me!” And the speaker often will not even remember what he or she said; the words were really God’s, meant for our ears. Now and again, I have had the clear sense of a spiritual anointing or breath on what I was saying to another. Over the years I have learned to trust this experience sufficiently to say: “I think this is a word of the Lord for you.” I want nothing more than to be a messenger of God’s good and holy words and will.
6. God speaks through inner witness: Jesus called this the “testimony of the Holy Spirit,” meant to reveal God’s truth to us, whether truth previously revealed or being revealed for the first time. The work of Christ’s Spirit is to convict and convince, to teach and guide, to comfort and strengthen, to heal and sanctify, rendering us fit for eternal life with God. God speaks to us through prayer, through what has been called the “five portals of prayer.” God can communicate through and directly affect our thoughts, feelings, will, imagination and memory. In addition to these five portals, there is a sixth: intuition. The breath of God can touch us with an immediacy beyond words. Through our intuition, we can come to know God person to Person.
7. God also addresses us in our dreams, as for example, through an unseen yet authoritative voice, or a religious figure. Religious dreams have a kind of “otherness” which set them apart from ordinary dreams. While you cannot justify that the dream was from God to another person, you still have an undeniable sense that it was a dream sent to you from above. Plus, you cannot really forget that dream; the fact that is lasts and lasts attests to its divine origin.
8. Finally, God can speak to us with what the rabbis termed in Hebrew the “bat kol,” meaning the “voiceless echo.” We are addressed and hear words unmistakably, but only with our inner ears. I have been addressed by God’s “bat kol” this way in some crucial moments of my spiritual life, beginning with God’s first command to me on November 20, 1067. God said, “Move on, there is more.” I sensed at once that it was God and/or of God. I eventually learned that God was intending to move me beyond the “gifts of the Holy Spirit, in what became the Charismatic Renewal, into contemplation, later that year.
What is it that God wants to say to us? Maybe we should ask first what it is that God does not want to say to us. God will not contradict Scripture, or say something meant to generate fear or anxiety. In the Bible an angelic messenger will often say, “Fear not,” prior to God’s revelation, so as to calm and assure. Nor will God’s address generate mistrust or diminish our sense of self-worth before God. Rather, God always seeks to integrate and strengthen us, to bring us to the truth which frees, heals and saves us.
There are six primary topics of God’s concern for us that lead to divine speech to us: love, direction, knowledge, wisdom, warning, and our condition.
1. Love: Above all and in all of God’s speech to us is God’s love for us. The fruit of God’s speech are the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Add empowering faith and hope. Our God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
2. Direction: God is ready, willing and able to give guidance about what we should do in this or that situation. We must learn to pray and wait patiently.
3. Knowledge: God grants us specific truths we need to know, including the discernment of evil.
4. Wisdom: God bestows wisdom of the right and the wrong path, of how to prosper in God’s ways through life. God desires that we remain strong and steady in the paths of righteousness and goodness.
5. Warning: God reveals to us when we are headed in the wrong direction, or when we are in danger, especially in danger of seriously wounding the well-being of our soul, if not of our salvation.
6. Our Condition: God’s Spirit will show us the current state of our souls and life, if we will but open ourselves to God’s Word and learn to fully listen. How do we know a word is from God? It has these elements. It is clear and distinct, novel and unexpected. We do not forget it; its impact does not diminish over time. It gathers us toward wholeness; it contains mercy and grace, even in judgment. It is what we need to hear, even if it is not what we want to hear. It ultimately strengthens and fires up our hearts.
We hear these elements at Jesus’ baptism, when God says, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:15). Who could forget that? We also hear these elements when the Spirit of Christ encourages Paul: “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so must you bear witness also in Rome” (Acts 23:11). Who would not be inspired by that?
God’s word is usually understated, brief and concise, and penetrates directly to the heart. Since God’s speech tends not to be overly dramatic or intensified by some external manifestation, it does not rob us of our freedom, it does not diminish our ability to say yes or no to God. God can seem more casual than we might want, considering how decisive God’s message can be for our lives. Yet God’s calm, gentle approach affords us some time and space to respond.
God can of course address us in dramatic fashion, replete with dynamic signs. Christ did that to Saul on the road to Damascus, with blinding light accompanying His word of revelatory warning: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). And on rare occasions, God can address us decisively as God did prophets like Isaiah, when God said: “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).
God is addressing us constantly through one or another of the above means. The problem is, few of us are listening or know how to listen. It takes time and trust, time in prayer and reflection, and trust that God will indeed speak to you. Yet in order to give God the time, there must first be the desire to hear – and not only to hear, but to heed, to obey and act on.
God is addressing you, desiring that you hear, believe in, trust and act on what God is saying. God is speaking to all that you are, to your whole life, past, present and future. God is speaking forgiveness and healing to your past; God is speaking faith and love to your present; God is speaking hope and promise to your future. God’s address is meant to heal your yesterday, resolve the neediness of your today and open up new possibilities for your tomorrow. God seeks to give you more than information, but to establish connection to you. God speaks not so much to give you some objective content as to grant you God’s subjective presence, power and purpose for your life. If you have never felt addressed by God, isn’t it time you did? If you have felt addressed before, perhaps you need renewed, clearer instructions. God seeks to speak to you far more than you seek to hear.
God may be addressing you with one or more of these messages right now: “All will yet be well – well eternally;” “Fear not, fret not, for I Am with you always;” “If you will only believe in Me, trust in Me, My peace will fill you;” “I need you to go forth and do My work; if you do so and I will guide and bless you;” “My grace is all you need; My power will be your strength.” Risk believing that God is addressing you now; then listen and heed. Ask Christ to help you hear Him; trust that you will recognize His address. For you belong to Him, and Christ’s own know His voice.